Plate it Forward: How Restaurants Can Make a Real Difference
With attentive audiences and bountiful resources, restaurants can become a perfect vehicle for making a difference in their communities.
Chef Steve McHugh assumed his trip from New Orleans to San Antonio was going to have a return flight. He was headed to the Alamo City to help legendary restaurateur John Besh spread his empire to the Southwest. But two months before departing, the 35-year-old was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a cancer that originates in the lymphatic system and has a five-year survival rate of 69 percent, according to the National Cancer Institute. He had two tumors, including one the size of a grapefruit. Chef McHugh was still able to make the trip and open Lüke, Besh’s French and German concept, all the while addressing team members bald and fatigued from chemotherapy.
After treatment, which lasted around a year, Chef McHugh decided to reroute his career. This new lease on life, it turns out, came with an actual lease. Chef McHugh and his wife, Sylvia, opened the aptly named Cured in late 2012. The name honors his battle with cancer as well as the menu’s focus on cured ingredients. As for the location, Chef McHugh wanted to make a difference in the same city he believes saved his life. They restored the administration building at the Pearl, a San Antonio structure built in 1904. “I just said, ‘You know, if we’re going to do this, we’ve got to make sure people know we’re here to stay, and we really love San Antonio and want to be a part of this community,” Chef McHugh says. “I had this connection here because this is where my doctors were and where I received my treatments. It seemed like a great place to stay and reboot my life.”
With charcuterie as the restaurant’s signature dish, Chef McHugh decided that $1 from every platter sold would be donated to a rotating charity that changes every three months. “We didn’t know what that was going to mean,” he says. “We weren’t sure if it was going to be $50 or $500.”
In the four years since opening, Chef McHugh says they’ve averaged around $5,000 per charity, per quarter. In fact, these days, Chef McHugh has to form a pseudo committee every year just to choose the recipients. This helps stave off the avalanche of requests he fields each week in his inbox.
Since this project began, Cured hasn’t repeated charities. The restaurant has included at least one cancer-related organization per year, such as the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and Susan G. Komen, and given to causes “near and dear to our hearts.”
For instance, they’ve raised money for Team Gleason, an organization built around the story of former New Orleans Saints player Steve Gleason, to benefit ALS research. This came a year after the restaurant’s general manager lost his father to the rare condition also known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease. Chef McHugh had a dog for 13 years that passed away, so he held a pet adoption out front of the restaurant and teamed up with the Animal Defense League.
In addition, starting in 2015, Chef McHugh has staged a yearly Cured for a Cure dinner at the restaurant. He’s joined by four other chefs, who each prepare a course. The money is donated to The Leukemia & Lymphoma Society, of which Chef McHugh serves on the local South Central Texas Chapter board of trustees. Last year’s edition raised $28,500. The 2016 dinner, held in September, collected $35,000 for the cause.
“It tough for me because I want to make a difference, but sometimes when you’re looking at fundraisers, there’s maybe not something there that excites you,” says Chef McHugh, who was a finalist for this year’s James Beard Best Chef: Southwest. “The problem is, I’m just not good at going out and asking for money. … So, I looked at it in the sense of: I want to make a difference, but how can I make a difference? What is it that I do really well that I can leverage to raise money for this great organization, this organization that saved my life because of the treatment they discovered. For me, the obvious choice was a dinner, because that’s what we do. We’re taking what we’re great at and paying it forward.”
Coming Up Roses
For much of the past decade, Chef D. Brandon Walker went about his business quietly. The Bread & Roses Café, a full-service restaurant in Venice, California, has provided quality meals to the city’s homeless population since 1989. When Chef Walker stepped into the kitchen in April 2007, he redefined the role. Instead of canned goods, he began to search local food banks and restaurants for donations of high-quality ingredients. Chef Walker also asks patrons to make reservations and deploys volunteers as servers in an effort to mirror the authentic restaurant experience. And back in the kitchen itself, he’s making a difference beyond just providing upward of 750 meals a week. Chef Walker is the program manager and instructor of the culinary training program at the St. Joseph’s Center, which offers free education to people facing hiring barriers, such as felony records and mental illness. During each program, he picks students to join him on the line, teaching them the skills needed to re-enter the workforce.
“A lot of my friends’ parents lived in the mobile homes and out of their cars on Rose Avenue in Venice Beach,” says Chef Walker, who also runs a successful catering business. “To be able to go back to the very community where I cut my teeth and to help those people, I think that’s what did it for me.”
In 2013, Chef Walker’s profile reached new heights when he earned the title of Food Network’s “Chopped” champion on an episode dedicated to chefs who give back in their careers. Winning one of TV’s top-rated shows did something else as well: It provided him with enough star power to make an even bigger impact in his community.
Chef Walker was on track to open The Mar Vista along with Chef Jill Davie this past fall. The two met during an event at the Good Hurt, a music venue in West Los Angeles’ Mar Vista neighborhood. The Good Hurt shuttered in 2014 and, as chance would have it, the pair picked the exact same space to open their first solo venture.
“It’s super cool,” Chef Walker says. “You definitely get that feeling like it was meant to be.” Chef Davie herself was no common chef citizen, either. She had appeared on Food Network numerous times, including a stint on “Next Iron Chef.” She also spent more than a decade as the “Lemon Lady,” traveling the world promoting citrus for Sunkist. With their collective reputations in tow, both agreed The Mar Vista was a perfect vehicle for philanthropy.
Chef Walker brought in one of his former students from the St. Joseph’s Center, Jorge Rivas, to direct the kitchen as chef de cuisine and partner. “Now it’s come full circle and he owns a restaurant with his old teacher. That’s pretty rad,” says Chef Walker of Rivas, who was the executive chef at Blue Plate Restaurant Group before this venture.
Rivas’ inclusion is just the beginning, Chef Walker adds. Eventually, he would like for the restaurant, which spins renditions of local cuisine against a musical backdrop, to be completely staffed by St. Joseph graduates. In the meantime, there will be two externs from every program working in the kitchen. Additionally, Chef Walker will instantly become Bread & Roses Café’s biggest supporter and donor.
All excess food from The Mar Vista will head straight to their kitchen. “It’s a cool thing because I have an inside knowledge of the kinds of things that can really be used—the kinds of things that are shelf-stable and are in good enough condition. I understand the logistics of saving food.”
Also, Chef Davie, who grew up in Mar Vista, will bring her “Cranked” concept to each table. The device, which she founded, turns “ugly” fruit into semi-frozen desserts known as granitas.
“Maybe it just starts with something small and builds into something bigger,” Chef Davie says. “Maybe if we can, in our restaurant, just embrace our values and our morals and our ethical practices, maybe we can influence [others] and get people involved in seeing the big picture.”
Extending An Olive Branch
Naturally, tackling food insecurity has always made sense for restaurants. Feeding America states that one in seven people struggle with hunger in this country. When you consider that more than 80 percent of the food waste generated by restaurants ends up in a landfill, carving out a donation program—even a small one—can make a major dent in this problem.
In Olive Garden’s case, the casual-dining brand, which has more than 800 units in the U.S. and Canada, didn’t think it was doing quite enough. That’s after donating a reported 35 million-plus pounds of food through its Harvest program over the last 13 years—the equivalent of some 30 million meals.
In March, Olive Garden announced that it was partnering with Feeding America to propel those numbers even higher. The goal was to tack on 5.5 million more meals to its current effort. “As we looked at what we could do, and ways we could give back as a company, hunger relief is just a natural fit as a restaurant company,” says Jessica Dinon, the manager of public relations and communications for Olive Garden.
She adds the company is able to leverage its position as a polished-casual restaurant to donate high-value items. “[The food banks] get a lot of chicken and seafood and fruits and vegetables from us that they probably don’t get much of typically,” she explains. In fact, Olive Garden has been donating its surplus food for so long that the processes are built into the company’s training materials. “It’s just extra steps at the end of the day,” she says. ”Any of our surplus food—sometimes we’ll overprep vegetables or proteins—we cook it just like we would for our guests. Then we chill it and freeze it so it remains safe to transfer and be donated.”
Olive Garden also encourages its franchises to get involved on a local level, and on Labor Day each year, they deliver food to first responders. The company supports a number of other causes, from partnering with the Red Cross in times of natural disasters to donating old furnishings, small wares, and décor items to local Habitat for Humanity Restores whenever a restaurant is remodeled. “Guests are becoming more passionate about the causes they believe in, and it’s important for restaurants to make sure we’re always listening to our guests as well as our team members,” Dinon says.
A Taste of Freedom
The military is another conversation restaurants figure prominently in. There are more than 250,000 veterans employed in the industry, according to the National Restaurant Association, and restaurants—especially multi-unit operations—often forge deep bonds with their military communities. At Brick House Tavern + Tap, a 26-unit concept under the Ignite Restaurant Group umbrella, the “Taste Freedom” campaign was developed as soon as the company realized it had enough clout to help out on a large scale.
Brad Leist, the chief financial officer of Ignite Restaurant Group, says their other brand, Joe’s Crab Shack, is one of “those restaurant brands that’s historically been known as a very charitable organization.” It was simply Brick House Tavern’s turn to catch up.
“We all sat around and you start thinking about what fits the brand, what makes sense with the guests we have at Brick House. The thing we kept coming back to was it would be cool to do something with the military,” Leist explains.
They decided to link up with Operation Homefront, a national nonprofit that helps military members in a variety of ways, from providing emergency assistance for troops to assisting the families left behind.
In July at their Sugar Land, Texas, location, Leist presented a check for $140,104.75 to the organization. This came from funds raised by all the restaurants. Guests are offered the chance to help in one of two ways—either in-store or on the website. Brick House then offers coupons in return. Items like free appetizers or entrées are exchanged for donations. This ran, fittingly, from Memorial Day through Independence Day.
The team also paid off the mortgage of U.S Marine Corps veteran Jose Alvarez’s Texas home. Alvarez served nearly seven years, including two tours in Iraq.
“It was a big surprise,” Leist says, noting that this is the third year they’ve done this for a veteran. “He thought he was coming just to thank us for participating and doing this new event for Operation Homefront, and then all of sudden he gets a key to his house. It was pretty awesome. You think about the service that these guys provided the country and the freedoms that they helped protect. It’s an awesome feeling to be able to give back.”
When it comes to making a difference, not every good deed can be planned. When a gunman killed 49 people and injured 53 at the Orlando, Florida, nightclub Pulse on June 12, there was an urgent need for food and water for the many first responders and families affected by the tragedy.
Jack Brill, the vice president of business development for Metz Culinary Management, reached out to elected officials to see if the foodservice provider could help. “We were glad to do it,” he says. “Everybody hopes, obviously, that these things never happen. But we wanted to make sure that we did our part as a community partner. It was amazing how Orlando came together in all aspects to try and help the victim’s families and the rescue workers. You don’t realize until you get involved in something like this how many people are actually involved in all different agencies, from elected officials to city officials to operations.”
Along with Barry University, they provided 493 sandwiches across four days to different groups, everyone from Bank One—a local blood bank—to the medical examiner’s office. They also brought dinner for 125 people at the Emergency Operations Center one night. The next, they cooked a hot meal for 35 people at the Red Cross headquarters. The pair also teamed up to supply breakfast Thursday and Friday at the medical examiner’s office.
Brill says they had to coordinate the entire operation by the minute.
“Our district manager, Jeff Brown, and our chef at Barry Law, they put together the menus, the types of sandwiches,” Brill explains. “Obviously, as you can imagine, the distributors can’t quite get there in three hours. We were responding on three hours to fours time every day. I would get a call at 2 p.m., ‘Hey can you serve dinner?’ We were trying to get ahead of the curve on when, so we could properly purchase and plan it out. At first it was all hands on deck, so to speak, to get it done.”
Marlow’s Tavern, who works with Metz, also stepped in and provided meals as well as raised funds. While small in the grand scope of a tragedy like this, Brill says, food can nonetheless play a vital role. “It makes a huge difference. It allows people to focus on what they’re doing and their efforts,” he says. “I think, really, it’s the bright spot in the day of what is otherwise a very challenging situation everyone is dealing with. We saw a lot of smiles when we came through the door. That’s all we could really ask for.”